I visit again and strike up a conversation with a gentle girl who is visiting her boyfriend.  They have already done 2 years, 4 more to go.  She looks longingly at Tala, who is chilly waiting by the gate and is nestled into me I suspect more for warmth than affection.  She points out how lucky I am to already have my children: By the time her boyfriend gets out she will have reached the age where fertility falls of a cliff.  If love were a conscious choice she would leave him.  It’s no way to have a relationship.  It’s a skinny kind of love, interwoven with swathes of missing and longing and loss.  But love isn’t a choice.

We are “Unintended Consequences” apparently.  So are the children, and the parents.  It saddens me most of all to see tidily attired, grey haired pensioners, careful pleats in their trousers, waiting patiently in line to support their sons, loving them still, whatever they may or may not have done, trying to rise above the shame.  It is understood that we suffer -, emotionally, physically, mentally and financially, but this can’t be helped.  It is the price we pay for continuing to love a criminal and he should have thought about this before committing his crime: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

There has been considerable work done in the U.S. on attitudes towards criminality and punishment and it seems that there is a deeply embedded cultural belief in a principle known as the “conscious actor”, whereby criminal acts are considered rational and it is believed that the perpetrator has weighed up the crime against the punishment and considered the odds favourable.
If this were the case then it would make sense to hand down lengthy custodial sentences as a form of punishment and as a deterrent.  However many, and probably even most, crimes are not committed in this spirit, indeed there are a plethora of other theories which seek to understand crime, but we seem determined to stick doggedly with the anachronistic conscious actor model which leaves us in our present situation of lengthening custodial sentences, poor resources, bad conditions, repeat offending and broken families.  And for what?  Is our need for vengeance really so great that it eclipses the suffering of so many for so little result?

Native American Indians didn’t have jails, considering them a punishment worse than any possible crime, indeed the Apache often died when they were incarcerated by the white man.  Financial settlements for wrongs done were made, and in instances of murder, tribe members could either be exiled or asked to take the place of the deceased within the bereaved family(!), often becoming beloved and valued members of their new families.  How’s that for forgiveness? For practicality? There was in any case very little crime, and (could this be related?) no poverty.  No-one went hungry if there was food in the camp.  If a man could not afford a blanket or a horse or whatever was deemed necessary for life, he was given it, but the Indians were called savages and largely exterminated by the white men whose decedents now lock up increasingly large numbers of men, most of them non whites (60% in a country where they comprise only 30% of the population).

Tala is exhausted having come straight from a highly successful birthday sleepover which might more properly be named a wakeover.  As soon as she sees Rob waving and smiling from his red seat at the back of the hall, looking more and more like the Wild Man of Borneo, she charges headlong at him and is to spend the rest of the visit draped over him practically asleep in his arms.  It is astonishing how small she suddenly allows herself to become again.  Folded in his arms they are a picture of bliss.  Her turquoise cardigan has ridden up a little exposing a small mid-section of tanned back and he strokes her softy: a small bubble of intimacy in the busy, desperate space.

A thin weasely guard shatters the moment. “Pull her clothes down mate” he orders in a disgusted tone which suggests that a father stroking his ten year old’s back is an act of blatant paedophilia.  Another slap.  We look at each other speechless.  We are dirt to him.  The look on Rob’s face frightens me.  I make him promise not to react if the guard returns.  I beg him to keep turning the other cheek inside.  These incarcerated men are like tinderboxes and there are so very many naked flames.

This place has made a coward of me, urging my husband not to stand up for himself, because I want him to come home one day.  I want it so desperately that I can’t even think about wanting it.  I don’t want to be like the wives who receive desperate, sheepish calls from men who have just increased their sentence by a couple of years for loosing it, and attacking a bully with a piece of wood, as has just happened to one of Rob’s co-workers on the sheet ripping line.  Another man is sacked for having a lighter in his pocket.  No more phone credit, no more canteen for him and an instant loss of status and extra visiting privileges.  He holds it together though and leaves quietly.

I have to switch off the big fullness of my love in the car on the way home to avoid that feeling of spilling uselessly onto the ground.  Tala is quiet on the journey. She asks what lawyers are for.  I explain that they represent you if someone thinks you have done something wrong, or if you think someone has done wrong to you. “Oh I need one then” she states confidently. “Can you ask Jim? It is wrong to take Daddy away from me.  Its not fair.  It hurts”.

How do I tell her that she is an unintended consequence? That she has no right to the daily love that used to be hers? It seems impossible and cruel: her quiet factual statement of pain, coupled with my own dull ache of resignation.  In the rear view mirror I watch her shut off the longing part of herself again as I have. Skinny love is all we can bear.